Lessons On North Texas Water, Courtesy of John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center
October 16, 2011
This year's drought has brought the stark reality of water availability front-and-center in Texas. The state has faced droughts before – but by all accounts, this is one of the most severe, and the population continues to expand rapidly. Water is not entirely taken for granted in this state, especially in central and west Texas, but this year's experience seems to have struck home for people in a profound way. Even as we have begun to get some sporadic rain, the talk of stage 4 water rationing continues. And yet there are also stories of people flouting the rules, watering away in their yards. I wish I could accompany those folks on a visit out to John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center.
Alex Steffen, introducing the water segment of World Changing, A User's Guide to the 21st Century, describes our attitudes well when he writes that "… the need to measure and plan and remain constantly aware of our water use is real. Although we know that water is an extremely limited resource, most of us in the Global North don't experience a sense of responsibility as we watch it flow into the drain. … We rinse a dusty glass and allow nearly clean water to be piped miles away to a sewage-treatment plant. Then we complain that water rates are too high." (p190).
The John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center provides a fascinating glimpse into North Texas water usage. It is a unique public/private partnership, part of the East Fork Wetlands Project, where treated water is being filtered through a man-made wetland, thereby removing much of the phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia that remains after sewage treatment. The water is then pumped back to Lake Lavon, which supplies the water for most of the suburbs north and east of Dallas (the next lake on the river, Ray Hubbard, supplies Dallas itself). The Center showcases this work and, incidentally, includes a beautiful series of boardwalks where one can learn about water-loving plants up close, watch for any of hundreds of species of birds, perhaps run into a river otter (or nutria), and one day, hopefully, American alligators.
I had the pleasure of tagging along with the Indian Trails Master Naturalist group today, as the Center Director John DeFillipo gave a talk about the Wetlands Project. I already do what I can to conserve water, but it is out of an arms-length sense of civic duty more than a deep understanding of how North Texas gets it water. His presentation gave me a new appreciation for the water I grew up with, and for the diverse flora and fauna of North Texas. For instance:
- As a kid in the northern Dallas area, I knew that we drank lake water – but I didn't know which lake (Lavon), and I didn't know that the lake is partially filled by transporting water from Lake Texoma, in Oklahoma – that is, until zebra mussels were found in Texoma. I always assumed that lake water would come only from the watershed that drains into it, without being pumped from elsewhere.
- While I've read about the severe competition for water in Colorado, I had never thought about it in such terms in Texas. We might be heading that same direction, if the drought lasts as long as some expect.
- Along those lines – as part of this project, the North Texas Municipal Water District must carefully measure the flow of all water entering Lake Lavon, and all water entering the East Fork River from several sewage treatment centers. It must then use those measurements to calibrate the flow from the river into the wetlands, maintaining a reasonable flow of water south of the river.
- I had no idea that river otters and American alligator lived in the Dallas area. Beaver also visit the wetlands; I knew about them thanks to a story in the mid-90s when one made the papers after being trapped in a parking garage in northwestern Plano. One of the participants actually saw an otter playfully chasing ducks.
The wetlands also serve a powerful lesson in impermanence: the land was once hardwood bottomland along the river; it was cleared by white settlers to become cotton farms; for much of the 20th century it was (and parts still are) a cattle ranch; and now a few thousand acres have been engineered into functioning wetland, providing habitat for innumerable species and providing a valuable service for humans. It is all too easy to look out at a parcel of ranch, farm, or blighted development and assume that is the now-permanent state. This site teaches us that, given enough time and/or ingenuity, we can conserve our resources, restore the land, and live more sustainably – if we have the will to do so.
I've just confirmed – my local water comes from Joe Pool Lake.